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Spanish drama finds a London home at Cervantes Theatre

When Jorge de Juan and Paula Paz first met on a production in Madrid – she had started as his new assistant director – neither could have predicted they’d find themselves in London setting up the Spanish Theatre Company and then creating a permanent home for it – the Cervantes Theatre in Southwark. But as De Juan puts it: “I’ve been coming to London since I was 17, when I saw Derek Jacobi playing Hamlet at the Old Vic. Since then, London has always been the theatre city for me.”

The Cervantes puts London firmly on the Spanish-language map, as the country’s first venue dedicated to showcasing Spanish and Latin American plays, performed in both Spanish and English in back-to-back productions. And, as the company behind the theatre, the STC works on a wider level as a cultural link between the UK and both Spain and Latin America.

De Juan and Paz’s vision has come to fruition only after lengthy fundraising that has involved Spanish and Latin American institutions and an Indiegogo campaign. With the guidance of Southwark Council and Network Rail, it has all combined to raise the £210,000 needed to convert this brick Victorian railway arch into a fully equipped performance space plus offices.

Paula Paz. Photo: Virgina Rota

The theatre is named for Miguel de Cervantes, considered the greatest writer of the Spanish world, who penned Don Quixote along with a string of plays and other works. Cervantes was a contemporary of Shakespeare and 2016 saw worldwide recognition of his own 400th anniversary and the launch of the new theatre in Southwark.

There’s an occasional rumble from the trains above to remind you that you’re in one of London’s new wave of vault venues. But that doesn’t detract from this impressive 90-seat venue, surprisingly roomy and warmer than your average studio space. True to STC’s ethic, it’s very much an Anglo-Spanish affair, designed by British architects Richard and Norman Braggs and upholstered by Spanish supplier Figueras.

De Juan hails from Cartagena in the south of Spain. The director and actor had originally studied at the former British Theatre Association but, until he returned to the UK with Paz to start up STC in 2014, he worked in theatre and screen mainly in Madrid. For Seville’s Expo ’92, he ran the huge O2-like El Palenque there and did more than 1,300 performances over the six months of the exhibition.

Fellow director Paz is from Madrid and worked as a dancer in various companies in Spain, as well as overseas for Ballet Ireland. Like De Juan, she also studied in the UK, completing an MA in theatre directing at Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts.

Talking to the pair, it’s easy to see how the vision that has brought them to London is reflected in their knowledge of the two languages and cultures, but they also point to the just-as-compelling reality of Spain’s ongoing crisis.

“It is not a very good moment for culture in Spain,” explains De Juan. “And it’s a problem that is not going to be resolved very soon. It goes all the way back to 1936 and the Spanish Civil War and the start of 40 years of the Franco regime. I think culture stopped there. Even the post-Franco governments have never seriously considered culture as a right, as a part of education.”


5 things you need to know about Spanish-language theatre

1. Considered the greatest writer in the Spanish language, Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616) was a contemporary of Shakespeare’s – dying not only in the same year but the day before, April 22. His novel Don Quixote is seen as the first modern novel and has inspired many plays and operas, as well as Broadway musical Man of La Mancha.

2. While Portuguese-speaking Brazil has a long tradition of festivals, the rest of Latin America has been catching up despite the global crisis. Although the focus to date has been on the continent’s Spanish-language productions and companies, as the network matures it is now opening its doors to the English-speaking world. North America has a range of festivals, while London has CASA, which brings award-winning Latin American theatre to the UK.

3. Spain’s annual Premio Nacional de Teatro (National Theatre Prize) is awarded by the ministry of culture. The first recipient was playwright Jardiel Poncela. The 2007 winner was Juan Mayorga, whose play about a Second World War concentration camp premiered in English at the Royal Court in 2005.

4. The Instituto Cervantes is Spain’s equivalent of the British Council. Created in 1991, the agency is the world’s largest organisation for promoting Spanish and Hispanic American culture and teaching Spanish in non-Spanish-speaking countries. The institute is the major international sponsor for Spanish performing arts.

5. In the past few years, Spain has seen its theatre suffer as its economic crisis deepens. Audiences and jobs were lost when the government imposed a controversial VAT tax hike on tickets, from 8% to 21%. Combined with massive cuts in funding and sponsorship, hardest hit have been festivals and touring companies. In 2014, Madrid-based Primas de Riesgo re-registered itself as a distributor of pornographic magazines and sold second-hand porn literature at 4%, with a free theatre ticket in each copy. Gerona’s PocaCosa theatre gave away free tickets with the sale of carrots, which, like porn, are also taxed at 4%.

Indeed, the near collapse of the Spanish economy has had severe repercussions on the performing arts, with the nationwide loss of funding and collapse of infrastructure. Much has been reported of grassroots artistic solutions, such as the rise of the micro-theatre network, but there are little signs of sustainability.

Paz says: “A group of theatremakers came here recently from Madrid and said they’d like to open a micro-theatre. But we had to ask why? There’s already fringe and so many other things in the UK – it’s not a new idea here. In Spain, micro-theatre needs to be part of a bigger industry, but that doesn’t exist.

“Today in Spain, it’s very difficult to develop a career. On the other hand, the UK continues to be such an important place to train. One of the things we’re doing is to bring positive things from Spain, such as the way we work and train, which is very different and of interest to UK practitioners.”

After establishing the STC, De Juan and Paz went to Southwark Council with the idea of the new theatre. “They told us more or less what we had to do,” recalls De Juan. “How to do it step-by-step and how to get involved with the community.”

As the Cervantes took shape, STC started with dramatised readings as mini productions – rehearsing for a week with props, sets and music.

These proved an instant hit with audiences through not compromising on the formula of producing plays in both languages with different casts. The fact that the company presents works from both Spain and Latin America widens the landscape considerably for a UK audience, while interest is now coming from places such as the Victoria and Albert Museum and Birkbeck College.

Aside from classics such as Federico Garcia Lorca’s Blood Wedding – which opened the theatre last year – the Cervantes is introducing successful texts that have never been translated into English. Playwrights include Enrique Jardiel Poncela – who knew Noel Coward in Hollywood and whose 1939 play Un Marido De Ida Y Vuelta bears a remarkable resemblance to Coward’s Blithe Spirit of two years later.

Jorge de Juan Photo: isabel del moral

“Jardiel certainly has a very British sense of humour,” says De Juan. “When we did his Eloisa Esta Debajo De Un Almendro (Eloisa Is Under an Almond Tree), we were surprised that the English version worked much better than the Spanish version. Our next play, Darwin’s Tortoise, is by Juan Mayorga, one of Spain’s best contemporary playwrights.”

“Our productions also have an educational side,” adds Paz. “We’re giving schools and universities the chance to see live performances of texts in Spanish. We were impressed that a large number of schools came to Blood Wedding – and even more asked about our other productions.”

Another area they’re expanding is acting courses and workshops for both English and Spanish-speaking performers. It’s a good mix, says De Juan: “What the Spanish actors appreciate most in the English actors is the way they deal with technique and their precision in dealing with the text. What the Spaniards bring is a passion to their movement and delivery. So when we mix the two approaches, it’s amazing to see how it works.”

“Also,” Paz observes, “when working with the two casts for the plays, I can see there’s a distinct physicality that comes from the personality of each language, informing in different ways how the actors react to each other and how they move.”

STC and the Cervantes are busy making other connections, such as with London’s Fourth Monkey Theatre Company, where De Juan is associate director, opening up an ongoing productive interchange. There are conversations too with UK-based companies that have Spanish connections, such as Little Soldier, which won The Stage Edinburgh Award in 2014.

De Juan and Paz have chosen an auspicious time to set up in London. As the West End clogs up with lucrative perennials and soaring ticket prices while the mid-to-large theatres in the rest of the capital struggle under the weight of their funding legacy, the Cervantes is a natural addition to the vibrant theatre hub that is crystallising around the Old/Young Vic and Shakespeare’s Globe and, along with Italian Stefania Bochicchio’s theatre programming for Draper Hall, brings another international element to complement the mix.

“All our neighbours have been very kind to us,” says Paz, “like Sasha Regan at the Union; the Bunker; the Young Vic. You feel the community, the support that comes from people who all want the same thing, to grow, to produce good work and engage with the audience in different ways. It’s all about the mix – and here we don’t feel like strangers.”

Profile: Cervantes Theatre

Artistic director: Jorge de Juan
Associate director: Paula Paz
Based: London
Founded: 2016 (Spanish Theatre Company: 2014)
Seats: 78-90
Staff: Three permanent, three interns, four seasonal
Funding including build funds (2015-16): £210,000 – grants 20% (Spanish Embassy, SGAE), donations 40% (mostly private individuals), sponsors 25% (Fundacion SGAE, Embassy of Spain, El Iberico newspaper, Network Rail, Figueras International Seating, Porcelanosa, Maferman Construction, GM Teatros, Industrias Maxi, Mar i Terra, JLCA and As Lawyers, Aculco Media, Instituto Maribel Yebenes, Nic Knight Managment, NFDA Trusted Dealers, Allies and Morrison, Silver and Technology, CASA Festival, Bauhaus, Ebanisterias Montesinos, Metalisteria Carrasco); remainder made of box office 10% and bar/food 5%
Key contacts:
Jorge de Juan 07923 610454
, jorgedejuan@cervantestheatre.com [1]; Paula Paz 07923 612826, paulapaz@cervantestheatre.com [2]; cervantestheatre.com [3]; spanishtheatrecompany.org.uk [3]

Darwin’s Tortoise/La Tortuga de Darwin runs at the Cervantes Theatre, London [4], from February 22-March 18